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Fatally Flawed


Back when I was in graduate school, shortly after the Earth cooled, a teacher counseled my fiction-writing class never to write a story about characters dying of cancer. The teacher's wisdom was that the subject matter, so grave and sober and painful, would just overwhelm all efforts for character development. Director Rob Reiner and Justin Zackham might have needed that advice in the creation of The Bucket List, and if they had it, they might have made a better movie. The Bucket List is the story of two very different men consigned to the same hospital room, both of whom are informed by their doctors that they have less than a year to live. Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) is a billionaire financier who has made his fortune running hospitals, not always with the best interests of patients as the focal concern. Edward is four-times divorced and estranged from his only child, a daughter now grown with a daughter of her own. Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) is an auto mechanic who put three children through college and graduate school. He had hoped to be a college history professor, but he got his girlfriend pregnant, married her, went to work to support his family, and has lived a materially sparse but emotionally rich life.

The film quickly dispenses with silliness suggested in the trailers that Edward and Carter start out disliking each other. They actually hit it off almost immediately, and that's a superior strategy. They talk about their lives, encourage each other through the agonies of chemo and play endless games of gin rummy. The picture gets its name and operative premise from the list that Carter scribbles down about things he wishes he might have experienced before he dies, before he 'kicks the bucket." Edward spies the list, adds some entries of his own, and insists that Carter join him in realizing as many of these objectives as possible, money, of course, being no object.

Jaunting about the globe in Edward's private plane, their accommodations and reservations arranged by Edward's attaché (Sean Hayes), the two pals go skydiving, drive race cars, visit the Egyptian pyramids, take an African safari, rent rooms in a Himalayan lodge and live the high life in the toniest Hong Kong cocktail lounges. But in ticking off the items on the bucket list, the picture goes sadly wrong, reminding us at every turn that we're not watching something 'real" but rather just some typically cockeyed Hollywood concoction. The terminal cancer patients I have known, and I have known too many, were regularly concerned with pain management, nausea and fatigue. Edward and Carter cavort as if they are perfectly healthy teenagers rather than men battling wasting disease. So the picture tramples on the nature of its own characters, trivializing their situation through long passages. The skydiving sequence is close to ludicrous, the racecar scenes worse yet as Edward and Carter slam their cars into each other and rip through the infield and off ramps that propel them outside the racetrack entirely.

But the picture is unconvincing in more disquieting ways. Reiner and Zackham want us to feel affection for Edward and Carter. But just about the time they start achieving that objective they have Carter agree to head off on his junket over the strong and completely understandable objections of his wife Virginia (Beverly Todd). In short, given the man the picture purports Carter to be, close to the last thing he would do as the clock of his life winds so quickly down would be to abandon his wife and family in order to indulge personal and often petty pleasures.

The Bucket List has its virtues. Nicholson and Freeman are powerful actors, and they do make us care about their characters, especially in those scenes not involved in the self-indulgence of the bucket list. In the end, the picture promotes the theme that friendship and family are far more important than the things and even the experiences that money can buy. But that pesky premise weighs matters down mightily.

I have been repeatedly awed by the courage and will of terminal cancer patients. My beloved father-in-law cherished the pleasures of travel, and in the last year of his life, a catheter in his chest and a portable pump for his medicine harnessed over his shoulder and strapped around his waist, he made one last trip to Europe, enduring the discomfort, fighting through short breath and sick stomach. And, of course, he went with his wife. He wouldn't have even wanted to go without her.

In The Bucket List, Carter (Morgan Freeman) and Edward (Jack Nicholson) embark on a thrill-seeking odyssey. - 2007 WARNER BROS. PICTURES
  • 2007 Warner Bros. Pictures
  • In The Bucket List, Carter (Morgan Freeman) and Edward (Jack Nicholson) embark on a thrill-seeking odyssey.

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